IDF shares photos of hostages’ futile ‘SOS’ and ‘Help’ signs

Halevi to troops, after 3 hostages killed: IDF doesn’t shoot people waving white flag

‘Take 2 seconds’ before firing, chief of staff says, telling soldiers that if even enemy gunmen ‘put down their weapons and raise their hands, we capture them, we don’t shoot them’

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

This photo released by the Israel Defense Forces on December 17, 2023, shows a sign reading "Help, 3 hostages,"   that was put up in Gaza by three Israeli hostages who were later mistakenly killed by troops. (Israel Defense Forces)
This photo released by the Israel Defense Forces on December 17, 2023, shows a sign reading "Help, 3 hostages," that was put up in Gaza by three Israeli hostages who were later mistakenly killed by troops. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi stressed the army’s rules of engagement to troops in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, two days after soldiers mistakenly shot to death three hostages in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood.

Speaking to soldiers of the 99th Division, he stressed that people holding a white flag in surrender must not be fired upon, and that even enemy fighters, if they put down their weapons and raise their hands, must be taken prisoner, not shot.

“You see two people, they have their hands up and no shirts — take two seconds,” Halevi said to the soldiers, referring to Friday’s tragic incident, where all three hostages were shirtless — signaling they were not wearing explosive belts — and one was waving a white flag. Halevi said on Saturday that the soldiers who shot the three had opened fire in breach of IDF protocols.

“And I want to tell you something no less important,” Halevi said Sunday. “What if it is two Gazans with a white flag who come out to surrender? Do we shoot at them? Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”

“Even those who fought and now put down their weapons and raise their hands — we capture them, we don’t shoot them. We extract a lot of intelligence from the prisoners we have; we have over 1,000 already,” he told the soldiers.

Halevi added: “We don’t shoot them, because the IDF doesn’t shoot a person who raises his hands. This is a strength, not a weakness.”

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks to troops of the 99th Division in the Gaza Strip, December 17, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Halevi told the soldiers that he was not speaking in order “to say whether [the soldiers who mistakenly opened fire on the captives] were right or wrong, but so that we will be right going forward.”

The three hostages, Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka, and Alon Lulu Shamriz, were kidnapped by Hamas during the terror group’s onslaught on southern Israel on October 7. They had managed to escape Hamas captivity before they were mistakenly shot dead by troops on Friday morning.

The IDF published photos on Sunday showing signs apparently left behind by the three hostages, which read “SOS” and, in Hebrew, “Help, 3 hostages.” The signs were written on fabric using leftover food.

The building with the signs, located a few hundred meters away from Friday’s incident, was discovered by troops on Wednesday, but initially dismissed as potentially boobytrapped by Hamas, as the terror group has attempted to lure soldiers into traps in the area in recent days.

(From L-R) Hostages Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Lulu Shamriz, who were killed mistakenly by IDF troops in Gaza on December 15, 2023. (Courtesy)

The IDF has said that according to an initial investigation, the three hostages had been in that building for some of the time after they escaped Hamas captivity or were abandoned by their captors. IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the military was also investigating another building the three hostages may have stayed in.

A soldier opened fire toward the trio upon spotting them, killing two and wounding the third, who fled into a nearby building. The third hostage then called out, “Help,” in Hebrew, and a commander ordered troops to stop shooting. But when the hostage exited the building, a soldier in a nearby building shot him dead.

This photo released by the Israel Defense Forces on December 17, 2023, shows signs reading ‘SOS’ and ‘Help, 3 hostages,’ that were put up in Gaza by three Israeli hostages who were later mistakenly killed by IDF troops. (Israel Defense Forces)

Immediately following the incident, the IDF sent new protocols to ground troops for the possibility of more hostages managing to flee captivity.

Halevi told the troops in Gaza on Sunday that “hopefully, we will have another opportunity where captives will come to us or we will reach a house, and do the right thing.”

Stressing that the incident was “very difficult and painful,” Halevi reminded the soldiers of the three aims of the IDF war on Hamas in Gaza, which erupted after some 3,000 terrorists burst through the border to Israel, killing around 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages — mainly civilians.

“Think about it: Why did we start the ground operation?” he asked. “We set three goals: to dismantle Hamas, to restore security to the residents of the communities near the Gaza Strip… and the third task is the return of the hostages.”

He ended his speech by urging the soldiers: “We always feel that fighting is with the hands, fighting is with the feet. I tell you, gentlemen, don’t stop thinking for a second in combat.”

Damaged buildings in northern Gaza’s Shejaiya, December 15, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

The IDF has carried out an initial probe into the tragic incident, finding that the soldier who opened fire upon misidentifying the three men as terrorists did so against protocols, as did the soldier who killed the third man, according to a senior officer in the Southern Command.

Still, the IDF understood that conditions in the field were a factor in the soldiers’ actions; the senior officer said the military has not identified any Palestinian civilians in Shejaiya in recent days. The scenario itself, of hostages walking around in a battle zone, had not been taken into account by the IDF.

Shejaiya in northern Gaza has long been seen as a key Hamas stronghold, home to some of its most elite forces and heaviest fortifications. The area where the hostages were killed was close to the scene of a deadly battle on Wednesday where nine soldiers, including two senior commanders, were killed.

The military believes Hamas’s Shejaiya battalion’s command and control is largely disrupted, and the terror group is operating in the area in a less organized manner, with smaller squads.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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